The fragility of digital

The fragility of digital

My favourite story of the week was Brewster Kahle (pictured), the MIT brainbox who 15 years ago founded the Internet Archive, announcing to the Associated Press that he is building an archive for every print book in the world, collecting one copy of each, and shutting them up into climate controlled containers to be stacked away in a warehouse in northern California. I like the almost barmy Cold War/post-apocalyptic feel to it: if the Russkies launch their missiles, or aliens wipe out the planet, there will be at least one copy of Moby Dick and Pride and Prejudice preserved for the ages.
 
Intriguingly, Kahle envisions his print archives as the equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, an underground Arctic storage unit built by the Norwegian government to have “backup copies” of the all world's food-crop seeds. These books will be used as “authoritative reference copies if the digital version somehow disappears into the cloud or a question ever arises about an e-book's faithfulness to the original printed edition.” And presumably, if all the copies in the world, say in the Library of Congress or British Library, have disappeared as well.
 
This does underscore one the vexing problems librarians and archivists are struggling with in this age: the fragility and difficulty of digital as a way of preserving content. Data rot, or the gradual decay of data from the medium that hosts it, is a major issue. CDs, depending on the quality, can be viable as little as five years; flash and hard drives survive about five to 10 years. Even data storage on the cloud is on physical machines somewhere that are vulnerable to power outages, electrical surges, temperature changes, poor insulation and a number of other physical factors that can lead to the degradation of data.
 
The rapid development of technology corresponds with a quickening in the obsolescence of our devices, another huge problem. Libraries rightly trumpet their digitalisation projects, but rarely talk about the back end stuff—that digital files are not being preserved for the ages but for the moment, or for about a decade. Archivists main tasks these days seem to be incessant digital maintenance and migration from one technology to the next.  Digital, in short, is not built to last, or cannot do so without constant upkeep.
 
Twenty-five years ago, for the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book, the BBC launched a Domesday Project in which a million volunteers recorded everyday life in Britain. The data was loaded onto 1986 cutting edge laser disc technology which almost immediately became obsolete and prohibitively expensive—the idea was for schools to buy the machines to read the data—so few people saw the Domesday Project. A good chunk of that 1986 project is now uploaded online at Domesday Reloaded. We shall see how long that website remains viable, but my guess is that it will not outlast the actual physical 925 year-old Domesday Book, which is at the National Archives in Kew, relatively as readable today as when William the Conqueror held it in his hands.
 
Kahle has some job to do with his project. Google estimates there are about 130 million books in the world. He has collected about 500,000 titles and concedes that about 5 million is probably what he’ll achieve. It does raise the question of what will happen to the hundreds of thousands e-books without print versions and Kindle only books being produced today. Will they be preserved for posterity or disappear into the ether?